We were very sensitive to the trauma he had experienced at the hands of the terrorists. The staff briefed us about the abuse he endured. In our limited time with Abdul, we were careful not to ask him anything that might upset him so we focused only on speaking about his future, and how he has adapted to life after Sabaoon.
Abdul is a great success story. One of the first graduates of the program, he excelled academically at Sabaoon. Shortly after his repatriation to his home village, he won a scholarship to university. He chose to defer his admission to take care of his mother and younger brother.
He occasionally comes back to Sabaoon to visit the staff and also to talk to the younger students about how the program has changed his life.
He is one of Sabaoon's role models.
Although addressing the children's needs and reducing the risk of re-engagement in terrorism are Sabaoon's most pressing objectives, its staff are not unaware of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that face the children when the leave the program.
For Sabaoon, so far it appears that recidivism is not the problem, though with any such program, we may have to wait a bit longer to see if someone returns to the fight. No terrorism risk-reduction program has a 100% success rate, or even close to that. When such claims are made, it doesn't take long to realize that there are significant questions surrounding definitions and measurement of "success" or "re-engagement."
Such questions need to be answered if programs like these are to be supported as creative approaches to counterterrorism. Knowing why they work is as important as knowing if they work. A few high profile instances of recidivism may spell the death-knell for such initiatives.
As academic researchers who study violent extremism, we have a great deal of hope for such programs, and Sabaoon in particular has been the shining ray its name implies. Battling immense odds, Sabaoon's staff remain infectiously optimistic and dedicated, and that's one of the reasons we will return later this year.
But time is not on their side.
A few years ago, research conducted by Dr. Mia Bloom highlighted the changing nature of women's involvement in terrorism. Today a similar argument could be made for the involvement of young children. Both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the child suicide bomber has come to represent a routine terrorist profile.
Children are easier to manipulate, and like female operatives, they can penetrate security checkpoints without raising the normal levels of suspicions. A 2012 report from Afghanistan suggested that almost 100 would-be child suicide bombers had been 'intercepted' in the preceding 12-month period. Many of those boys were recruited in Quetta.
What the rising tide of child militants means for the development of counter-terrorism initiatives, or even child protection, is unclear.
Sabaoon alone will certainly not solve this problem, but it, and programs like it must continue to develop if we are to truly prevent the next generation of militants.